Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A man, a plan, a canal: Apocalypse!

A kind of circumpunct.  Google Earth
Back when I was knee-deep in researching "les Saintes Puelles", I managed to visit the village which bears their name (Mas-Saintes-Puelles) in the Lauragais.  Not wanting to take the motorway home, I decided to meander my way back along the smaller highways and byways in order to get a better peep at the villages along the route.

Both the motorway and smaller roads follow the course of the Canal du Midi.   This canal is an engineering marvel, extending 150 miles from Bordeaux on the Atlantic to Sète on the Mediterranean Sea.  As many as 91 locks, some of them multi-tiered, and a total of 328 structures form part of its course:  bridges carry the canal over rivers and highways; there is a dam and at one point it goes through a tunnel.  Approved in 1666 and begun the next year, it only took a surprising 14 years to be completed, in 1681.  The canal was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, engineer and tax farmer, a man of great wealth and vision.  The project consumed him and he died the year before it was completed.

Today, Riquet is honored across France.  Innumerable streets bear his name and several monuments are dedicated to him.  It is one of these monuments which concerns us here.

The Obelisk. LoS photo.
The summit of the canal du Midi is located at the

Seuil de Naurouze, aka Col de Naurouze...a mountain pass in southern France. It is the watershed point identified by Pierre-Paul Riquet when he designed and built the Canal du Midi. Water falling on the western side of this point flows to the Atlantic Ocean and on the eastern side to the Mediterranean Sea.

When I came across this place I was attracted by an enormous obelisk which thrust upward from a tree-covered hill by the side of the road.  Parking, I walked towards this and found at the summit of the hill a high and perfectly circular wall with a locked gate.  In the center of this was a series of large boulders and upon these, the obelisk.

LoS has long been interested in several themes.  Perhaps one of our first obsessions was the idea of sacred waters.  As we wrote, it also became apparent that we were interested in sacred stonesObelisks, too, form a large part of our repertoire.  (Follow these links and see for yourself).  This monument explicitly brings all these elements together.

At the gate one finds a pair of explanatory panels of much more recent origin.  One of the texts says the obelisk is

....a monument constructed in 1827 upon the stones of Narouze in homage to P.P. RIQUET, creator of the Canal du Midi (1680).
The troubadours sung of these [stones] during the Middle Ages and according to the legend, when these stones touch, the end of the world will be at hand. (my abridgement and translation)

The second text tells us the obelisk is 20 meters (almost 66 feet) in height and at its base, allegorical figures are carved in bas-relief.  The north face features Minerva, symbolizing wisdom, and Mercury, symbolizing commerce.  (Both of these gods have featured in LoS posts in the past, Minerva as patroness of the Bohemian Grove and Mercury as seen on the "macaron" of the BIPM).

The panels specify the symbolism of the gods portrayed and although their attributes are much more varied, I think we can assume the official explanation is accurate.  France places a high value on its engineers and scientific achievements and indeed, the Revolution stressed the values of reason and rational thinking.  "Wisdom" is a national virtue.  Mercury, representing commerce, is a logical choice.  The canal was not built for pleasure boating.  Indeed, it was a way to facilitate the transport of merchandise, one motivation being that the route around the Iberian Peninsula was long and rampant with pirates.

On the south, a nymph symbolizing the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain) pours water from an urn into the "rigole de la plaine" a complicated structure of basins and locks which helps to assure the perennial supply of water for the canal.

This flow of water then divides into two parts to symbolize the division of water, i.e. the watershed point.  Neptune pours this water to the Atlantic and Venus, to the Mediterranean.

Now, while Neptune is also quite an evident choice as god of the seas and oceans, I was at first puzzled by the inclusion of Venus.  But I myself have already written on Venus' extensive association with the sea:  she was after all, born from its foam and carried to land upon a shell.  She comes from the sea and here returns water to it.  Full circle.  Perhaps both symbolic and very concrete; the engineering genius of the canal is the way it combines natural sources with a complex series of lock and basins and artificial lakes to guarantee that the water is constantly re-supplied.

Venus is also a precursor of the Virgin as Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, the significance of which I will return to in a moment.

It would seem as if so many of the themes we've explored on LoS are encapsulated here in this monument.  When I decided to finally get to this post after 8 or so months, I hadn't done much by way of research; but when I began to dig a bit, I came across a doozy of a page which further explains the legend behind these stones, associated somehow with the end of the world.

It seems fitting for the Riquet heirs to have built a monument to their illustrious ancestor at the watershed of his creation, but that it coincides with such a rich legendary history is pure gold.  I don't know if the Riquet family was aware of these legends, but whoever put up these panels was.  They didn't do the legends justice.  It took me but little time to find out more at the website of the Societé Perillos.

I will here quote rather liberally from a page entitled The stones at the end of the world but you should really go there and read the entirety in order to get a wider picture:

....the top of [the memorial] is a series of rocks that forms the subjects of our interest. For Nostradamus, deemed to be one of the most famed prophets, these stones were highly symbolic, as he claimed that when these seven rocks, each separated by various fissures, would rejoin, the end of the world would arrive.

....legend has it that they were transported by a giant, Naurouzo, and that they were to be used to build Toulouse. However, it appeared that the giant learned that the city had been completed without him, and in his fury, he threw these stones down where they have remained ever since.  

I would add that this idea of giants throwing down stones to explain rock formation is a common folkloric element in France.  Likewise micturation to explain the origins of rivers.


They [the stones] featured, under the name of “Peiras d’Alzona” in songs of the 13th century troubadour Ramon de Mireval. One should underline that there is another Alzonne, not too distant yet not immediately in the vicinity either, a bit further in the direction of Carcassonne.

In the 15th century, the bishop of St Papoul, Pierre Soybert, also wrote about the stones. He refers to them as the “Rocha de Nau Rosa”....He also relates about a prophecy that seems disquieting for the mental health of humanity, rather than for the world as such. He states that “when the stones of Naurouze touch, the world will become shameless.”

In origin, the name Alzona comes from “Al” and “Ona”. Al relates to water, and Ona is linked with a place. Its link with the separation of the waters is hence to be expected, but there is also the famous miraculous fountain known as “Font Alzona”, as well as the “Elusio”, the spas, both of which are close to this site.

As to Naurouze, let us note that it was apparently derived from “Nau Rosa”, which can be translated as “the new flower” or “the new rosa”, or even “the lady of the rose”, or “the rose lady”. 

Okay.  I don't know about the reliability of the etymology of the name Alzona.  It seems to be quite widespread in the Philippines, leading me to suspect a Spanish origin, but there are also Alzonas in Italy as well.  Generally speaking, words beginning with "al" are Arabic in origin (algebra, alcohol) and effect seen more clearly in Spanish than English.  Alzona could have worked its way from Iberia into the Occitan language which is still spoken today in a tiny corner of Catalonia and Italy and is the traditional (but dying) language of the Midi.  This may or may not be important, but as the Societé Perillos page continues:

....this hill is not unique in its prophetic alliance....Islam has the tradition of a place known as Rhama, where the stones were said to be able to lock together if pilgrims passed between them. Not just any pilgrims, but women that cried according to an established sacred ritual.

Again, I cannot verify the etymology of the word Narouze, although it is an Arabic surname.  The idea that it originally meant "new rose" seems a bit suspect, but nonetheless the 15th-century belief that it did is itself significant.  Interestingly, the use of the name here is associated with a woman.  As we have seen time and again on LoS, roses are often associated with saintly women, the Virgin Mary at the top of the list.  St. Thérèse and St. Germaine, the saint of the Midi, are likewise associated with miracles of roses.  Didn't Elton John refer to Lady Di as England's rose?  Aren't "England's roses" metaphorically the beautiful young women of England?  Is this why we see Venus at the base of the obelisk?  (Wouldn't we all like to have Venus at the base of our obelisks?)

Recall that legend mentioned above.  It is women pilgrims who can bring forth the miracle (not-so-clearly) therein described.  This may not be an ancient preoccupation, but the association of women with the canal certainly figures in modern histories.  Wikipedia states baldly "The women labourers were surprisingly important to the canal's engineering." and dedicates a paragraph of a roughly 20-paragraph article to explain why.  It also mentions that the "staircase of eight locks at Fonsérannes....was built by a workforce composed mainly of women."

All that said, I don't know if there should be any emphasis placed on the sacred feminine, even though it does fit in with the higher status accorded women in the historical Midi.  I'm also unsure of what this Arabic link may mean, apart from the lingering cross-cultural influences which appeared during the Muslim occupation of Spain and the Reconquista.  Sacred stones/springs appear in various legends which involve Christians and Moorish opponents, from the legend of St. Fris to that of Pelayo, the Visigoth who kicked off the Reconquista.

According to the Perillos site the stones at Narouze are part of an ancient meme:

[Another] such sacred pagan location was Belle-Île, where it was said that two megaliths, at night-time and secretly, came closer to each. Jean and Jeanne, the name of the two standing stones, at the time of an astronomical conjunction (the exact nature of which is unknown) would be reunited and would exact their revenge on Mankind, under the form of a tidal wave that would wipe us out. The same legend is known on the île de Sein, as well as near Tredion where the rocks are known as Babouin and Babouine [masculine and feminine forms of "baboon"]. Here, local tradition links them with the time of Christmas, and especially the moment when the genealogy of Jesus is read out. They also become displaced during the twelve strokes of midnight....and when the rocks move, it is said that an incredible treasure is unveiled.

Again, see the "legend of the seven cows of gold" in the post about St. Fris, which bears some similarity to this last legend (treasure, water, stones, stroke of midnight, the number seven, a kind of music).

On page 158 of [the] re-edition [of “Livre du passé Mystérieux”, 1973 by Robert Laffont...this surname is French and refers to someone who lived near a spring or well!], we find a subtitle “Pierres à oracles. Fin de Marseille!” – “Oracle stones. The end of Marseilles!”

Charroux [the first man to write about Rennes-le-Chateau, which is about 80 kilometers distant] writes about prophecies and notes that “near Rennes-le-Château” there is a rock formation. A local legend states that they were thrown from the sky by a giant who, after his temper had settled down, prophesised that “when the rocks would rejoin, the end of the world would come”.

Of course, Charroux does not speculate further, instead opting to tackle the “Seuil de Naurouze”, finishing with a prediction made by a certain de Novage who, in 1905, saw Marseilles being swept away by a wave, which heralded radical changes for the geology of the entire globe.

So, how bout them noon blue apples?  Since very early on LoS, we have noted several instances where sacred stones and sacred waters are to found at the same locations, such as at the Garden of Eden and the Kaaba, among others. From the discovery of St. Fris to the death of Santiago de Compostela, to the legends surrounding Virgin Martyrs.  Interesting that in this case, the movement or joining together of great stones heralds the arrival of destruction by water.

Flood myths figure in a number of religious traditions, but the Biblical precedent probably explains the recurrence here.  Remember that at Narouze there are seven stones and that God, commanding Noah to build the Ark, specified that he bring seven pairs of each type of animal to be saved.  Also recall that the Ark, after the rains abated, came to rest upon a high place such as hill upon which the obelisk is erected.  In Jewish and Christian tradition, this is Mt. Ararat, although early Christian, Islamic and Yazidi tradition has it as Mt. Judi. (It also just struck me that the US agency responsible for monitoring weather and the oceans is NOAA; I just visited and the lead story says "Be safe about floods".  I can't make this stuff up.)

So this high place with its seven stones and the apocalyptic associations links it squarely within the Abrahamic tradition. In addition to this are Celtic precedents in which groves, high places, waterways and springs, as well as standing stones, were accorded sacred status.

I found myself wondering why this movement of stones would signal the apocalypse but we would do well to the legends around Atlantis and the speculation about the fate of the Cretan civilization, as well as the recent examples of the great tsunami in 2004 and that of Japan in 2011.  In all these cases we speak of vast destruction and oblivion by great waves of water, set into motion by earthquakes--great stones crashing together. Whatever mystical explanations we can find are also supported by the more concrete reality of geological instability.

So, I'll stop here, but knowing how things like this go, I'll soon see another piece of the puzzle to set me off again....


  1. For those who read French: http://polymathe.over-blog.com/article-la-legende-des-pierres-de-naurouze-montferrand-aude-52861693.html

  2. "(It also just struck me that the US agency responsible for monitoring weather and the oceans is NOAA; I just visited and the lead story says "Be safe about floods". I can't make this stuff up.)"

    That's just Universe winking at you. Don't be alarmed.


  3. NOAA, Noah -- ha, ha! Never made that connection...

  4. OK - totally riffing of a string of "this-leads-to-that" thoughts:

    * You wrote: "Alzona could have worked its way from Iberia into the Occitan language which is still spoken today in a tiny corner of Catalonia and Italy and is the traditional (but dying) language of the Midi."

    * Wikipedia didn't make Occitan look dying until I read under "Usage in France": "Though it was still an everyday language for most of the rural population of southern France well into the 20th century, it has been all but replaced by the systematic imposition of the French language."

    * This phrase in Wikipedia was a link: "systematic imposition of the French language"

    * The link led to Vergonha

    * In there I read: "Vergonha is being made to reject and feel ashamed of one's (or one's parents') non-French language"

    * Upon which I recalled that you quoted: “He also relates about a prophecy that seems disquieting for the mental health of humanity ... when the stones of Naurouze touch, the world will become shameless”

    * And then I thought about the quote insinuates that losing shame is bad

    * Whereas I've long associated losing shame with something good

    * But as I ponder this (shame is good or bad?), the tension is obvious: there are things we ought to be ashamed off because they are wrong and our shame helps us act in proper ways; but there things we ought not be ashamed of because our shame can be a shackle, preventing us from doing/speaking what it right or true because it is discouraged or unpopular.

    That's as far as I got with that thread of thought...

  5. Anonymous:

    As much as I fancy a nod and a wink
    I'd rather the universe buy me a drink!


    Yeah, that NOAA thing just struck me out of the blue. Do you suppose that's just a coincidence? If not, does it constitute a violation of church and state? ;)

    BTW, the flag for NOAA ships features a circle within a triangle, within a larger circle. All these obsessions link up in odd ways....

  6. The Yellow Rose of Texas. I never knew it honored a mulatto woman and that it was about a "darky" in love. I've heard the work "high-yellow" for light-skinned (presumably mixed race) blacks, but never linked it to the song. Thanks for that fact, Gid. Tucked away until needed again!

    The train of thought you have there raises a lot of issues. I think losing shame is usually a good thing, but the adjective "shameless" as far as I've always heard, is pejorative, no? Like someone so devoid of any shame they are entirely immodest or without restraint: a "shameless hussy" for example. So, if shameless is an accurate translation, it would mean the world will become completely corrupt and immoral. If, on the other hand, "without shame" is the translation, one could argue that the world will become pure.

    I would propose that given the apocalyptic association and that the Biblical accounts of destruction (Flood, Sodom, etc) all were acts of cleansing, I imagine "shameless" as in without scruple is accurate.

    Vergonha is a word I've never heard, but it's related I imagine to the Spanish vergüenza, which means the same thing. It's been very effective. A lot of very old people from the country still speak Occitan and many know some phrases or expressions (patois, they say), but it has been effectively wiped out. A lot of people do denigrate the tongue and I've seen vergonha in action. Not a red-faced shame, but a kind of putting it down and devaluing it.

    On the other hand, a lot of young people want to learn Occitan and I know a few people who are active in "Occitanism"--promoting its use. They have primary schools taught in Occitan and in others some courses can have this as an option. Not studying Occitan but math, science, geography, etc. But for all practical purposes it's dying. The French drive for uniformity and homogenization (sp?) which was behind the creation of the departments, the metric system, etc. was also applied ruthlessly to language.

    It may survive though. But I can only think of three or four people our age (and younger) who speak it fluently and at home as a first language (alongside French). That said, some of the old-timers in my village speak French with such an accent because it's a second language for them.

    Still, I've had people say to me "qu'es aquò?" (What's up?) and "fa calou" (It's hot) but they always repeat it in French cuz they think I don't understand. I actually use Occitan all the time in my French. "Ba plà" can mean "ok" , "there you have it" etc. I use it almost daily. "First you type this in and press this button and bla plà, it's finished."

    So, it's definitely still around and about, but I've only overheard it being spoken on one, maybe two occasions in nearly ten years. Too bad, it's an old, vast and extremely nuaced language with a lot of dialectical variation. And it's not really dying a natural death, but after a long progrom, to put it bluntly....

  7. And sorry for being such a pedant in that there comment.

  8. oh, but I enjoyed that there comment, so ba plà, two birds of a feather.

    my history's actually quite terrible, and I have a hard time picturing what is currently france/spain before it was so. not to mention the low lands. all the languages & separate peoples there? it astounds me.

    so pardon my ignorance & i'm pleased to hear these things.

    but Occitan ... it's very close to Catalan, no? or do I have that wrong? b/c Catalan is, at least under my impression, threatened--but not quite dying.

    i'm probably mistaken

  9. and here, this is hope, right?


  10. "Italians will evacuate Rome on Wednesday over fears that a giant earthquake is coming following a seismologist's 1915 prediction that "the big one" would hit the capital on May 11, 2011."

    are the stone trying to touch?

  11. Hey Gid. Yer right, Occitan and Catalan are quite close. I've read that some linguists even them consider them dialects of the same language, but in comparisons I've seen one is as different from the other as Spanish and Portuguese. I guess one sense all the Romance tongues are extreme variations upon the other.

    Catalan is thriving though. It's a relatively small group of speakers but with Barcelona such an active culture, it has a large body of artistic work to lay claim to. Under Franco it was suppressed, but since his death has come back roaring. Spain actually is very linguistically diverse, Catalan and Basque being the most notable minority tongues, whereas far fewer French Basques or Catalans speak the language. And France is much more unified and Paris-centric, so there's a link. The French knew what they were doing when they suppressed minority tongues.

    Aranese is one of the dialects. Interesting the Val d'Aran is part of Catalonia, so its recognition as an official tongue can be seen in the broader context of Catalans asserting their own culture and language against the Castillian majority. Anyway, there's hope but I'll link you to a PDF which clarifies the situation. I actually contacted the author a while back. Nice fellow: Language planning in the Val d’Aran.

    And finally, no earthquake in Rome. But a 5.1er killed about 8 or 10 people in Lorca, Spain...first ne in 5 decades....


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